The Promise of Something New

For some reason, I continue to think a great deal about All Saints Day, even though we are now weeks beyond it. It was probably because the list of names was long this year–was there any congregation for which that wasn’t true?–and that extended list of names, of faces, of loved ones really brought home all we have lost in the last year.

So, this post is a few weeks late, but at the same time, it is shaping how I think about Advent this year: both the eager anticipation of the incarnation, and also the reminder of Christ’s coming again–the beginning and the end, all held together. It is comforting to think about the celebration of All Saints Day wrapped in that larger reality, I think.

So, to All Saints Day.

As anyone who has seen or read Pet Sematary knows, it’s not a good idea to raise the dead.

This is reflected in what we call the “post-dead”: the walking dead, the undead, zombies. Whatever they are, they are not human anymore; they are something else. The smell of death clings, and somehow, they’re just not quite right, with one foot in the grave and one foot on solid ground.

So, somehow, it strikes me as odd that the church has chosen the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus for the Gospel text on All Saints Day, the day above all others in the church calendar when we remember the dead, console ourselves with the knowledge that they are in God’s care, and look with hope to the promise of our own resurrection and a cosmic family reunion. It is a day of loss, a day of remembering the past to be sure; but even more than that, it is a look to the future, a day of hope.

By contrast, the raising of Lazarus is about none of that. The raising of Lazarus is a resuscitation, not a resurrection, and those two things are quite different.  Lazarus is not transformed, he is restored. Lazarus does not enter into new life, he returns to the life he had before. And, like the family cat in Pet Sematary, Lazarus still has the stink of death on him as well. One wonders how life went on for Lazarus and his sisters.

For me, it is the difference between looking back and looking forward. Lazarus is a return to what was, it is Jesus setting something right according to the standards that had been. The resurrection, by contrast, is a looking forward, the establishing of something brand new, something longed for that is yet in the future; something as yet unknown, as yet unseen.

Now, you might think that this distinction doesn’t matter, and it’s probably fair to say that it doesn’t matter for Mary and Martha, whom I imagine are simply relieved and grateful that their brother who was lost has been returned to them.

But for us, it matters a great deal. It matters in that it shapes how we think about the resurrection hope we have in Jesus Christ. Do we think the resurrection is just what we have now, only more; just what we are now, only better? Is the resurrection just a second chance at this same life?

Obviously, I think the answer to those questions is no. The resurrection is the concrete embodiment of the hope of something radically new, something we can only dimly see, barely imagine from today’s vantage point. It is a vision that doesn’t come to us from the past, but something that breaks in from the future. It’s not about continuity, but discontinuity; and in that way, it invites us to look at our lives differently, even now to imagine God at work, creating in us–and in the world around us–something wonderful and extraordinary, something new that has its origins in what is still to come.

In all of that, I see a connection to Advent, too, which also starts with the end of the story–this year, the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Advent is from Luke, describing the signs that will herald the coming of Christ. We celebrate the incarnation through the lens of the ultimate transformation that awaits the whole universe; we rejoice in the birth of the one child as we simultaneously marvel at the cosmic ramifications of that birth.

Even as we remember those loved ones who have died, we look forward. Death may well be an end, but that is not all it is; and ultimately, it calls us not back, to what was, but forward, to what awaits.

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